BASEBALL'S POSTSEASON HAS CHANGED—AND SO HAS EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT WINNING IN OCTOBER. THE KEY TO BECOMING A 21ST-CENTURY CHAMP? DO AS BUSTER POSEY AND THE GIANTS DO: PUT THE BAT ON THE BALL AND JUMP ON THOSE CHANCES TO SCORE
This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2012 issue
What does it take to win the World Series? The traditional wisdom says that October demands a dominant team with one or two aces who can win close games at a time when runs are scarcer than in the regular season.
Forget tradition. These days, that kind of postseason thinking is about as current as a typewriter or a pay phone. Welcome to the new October.
Your next world champion would do well to behold the last one, the 2011 Cardinals, a 90-win team without so much as a 15-game winner, not as an aberration but as a model of how to exploit the new postseason. The extra rounds of playoffs—a new fourth layer this year will have two wild-card teams in each league squaring off in knockout games on Friday—have created a tournament flavor in which the hot team trumps the better team. In the 16 full seasons under the wild-card format, teams with 92 or fewer wins have won the World Series nine times—just three fewer times than in the first 90 years of postseason play (not counting shortened seasons).
The rules of engagement have changed so much that last year there were more runs on a per-game basis in the postseason than in the regular season. Offense wins in October? What in the names of Koufax and Drysdale is going on here? "Our key numbers are on-base percentage and [hitting with] runners in scoring position," says Brian Sabean, general manager of the Giants, a team well equipped for the new October. "Our two best hitters, [Marco] Scutaro and [Buster] Posey, are hard to strike out. They are good two-strike hitters and use the whole field. That sets the tone for everybody else in our lineup."
While steroid testing with penalties seems to be the default answer to every change in baseball since the drug-screening era began in 2004, the biggest change in how the game is played is the proliferation of strikeouts. The K frequency has risen for seven consecutive years, setting new alltime highs in the last six (this year's rate through Sunday was 7.6 per team per nine innings, up from 7.1 in 2011) and producing an overall increase of 19% since 2005. So plentiful are strikeouts that the average relief pitcher strikes out nearly a batter per inning (8.4 per nine). That's a function of teams steering power arms to bullpen duty and managers using a parade of specialized relievers to turn the last third of ballgames into matchup-fests that create stark platoon advantages.
It's not just flamethrowing relievers and cagey LOOGYs, though—all pitchers have become much more adept at putting hitters away. Twenty years ago, 34.1% of plate appearances in which a hitter had two strikes ended in a strikeout. This season that figure is 39.8%, the highest since such stats were first tracked, in 1988.
The formula for modern postseason success begins with countering the proliferation of strikeouts. A team that can do so is a team with hitters who can put the ball in play. A team that puts the ball in play has a better chance of driving runners in from scoring position. A team that hits with runners in scoring position is a great rally team. And great rally teams win in the new October.
The Cardinals won the World Series last year because they would not let Rangers pitchers get strike three in their epic, come-from-behind Game 6 win. David Freese, the eventual Series MVP, and Lance Berkman each stroked a game-tying hit when a third strike would have given Texas its first world championship—Freese hit a 1--2 pitch for a game-tying triple with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Berkman tied things again with a single on a 2--2 pitch with two outs in the 10th. (Freese won the game in the 11th with a home run on a full count.) Texas pitchers had 24 two-strike counts in Game 6 but managed to get the third strike only six times. St. Louis scored six of its 10 runs in that game on two-strike counts, including its last five.
"When putting a roster together, we're always looking for balance," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak says. "We want some players who hit for power, for extra bases, and we always like guys that get on base. What you're trying to avoid is somebody who strikes out a lot and is not a run producer. With [hitting coach] Mark McGwire, his philosophy is to grind out at bats. You need to be a disciplined hitter: to be aggressive when you need to be but not be afraid to hit with two strikes."
The 2011 Cardinals and Rangers each were the hardest team in their league to strike out and were the best at hitting with runners in scoring position. That combination has loosely defined recent champions in the Age of the Strikeout. The past six teams to reach the World Series have ranked first, first, fifth, fourth, second and eighth in their leagues in fewest strikeouts. That bodes poorly for such strikeout-prone postseason hopefuls this year as Oakland (14th in the AL), Baltimore (12th), Washington (14th in the NL), Atlanta (13th) and Cincinnati (11th).
As for hitting with runners in scoring position, the past six World Series teams ranked first, first, 16th, third, fifth and 10th. That trend would seem to work against Atlanta (16th in the NL) and the Yankees (11th in the AL), both of whom have had trouble hitting in key spots. The teams that best fit the profile of a rally team this October? Keep an eye on the Cardinals (fourth in fewest strikeouts, fourth in RISP) and the Rangers (fourth, third) again, as well as the Tigers (sixth, first) and Giants (first, sixth).
"I think you want hitters in the middle of your lineup who are flat-out great hitters, not just power hitters," says Dodgers manager Don Mattingly. "What makes the Giants so tough is that they have two guys in the middle, Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval, who hit good pitching and are tough outs. They're not high-strikeout guys. Posey is such a great pure hitter, and Sandoval is so tough because even when you don't throw him strikes, he still can barrel it up. A pitch you would normally throw when you're pitching around a guy isn't bad enough when you're pitching to Sandoval. He's like Vlad Guerrero that way: tough to get out even outside the zone."
The Giants have hit the fewest home runs in baseball but have produced the sixth-most runs in the NL by spraying the ball through gaps, particularly at home in spacious AT&T Park. Though the club lost outfielder Melky Cabrera, one of its top hitters, to a 50-game suspension on Aug. 15 after he flunked a drug test for using synthetic testosterone (his ban will end after San Francisco's fifth postseason game, but the club said last week he is not welcome to return), the offense improved over the past two months.
"When [Angel] Pagan went back to the leadoff spot and Scutaro took over the number 2 spot, that's when things really clicked," Sabean says. "And of course, there's Buster. He's been huge in the second half."
Posey is the favorite to win the NL Most Valuable Player Award, what with his .334 batting average, 23 home runs and 100 RBIs and the Comeback Player of the Year Award, after he missed the last four months of last season after breaking his leg in a collision at home plate. Posey has been particularly productive this season in the second half (a .389 average after the All-Star break), with runners on base (.355) and with runners in scoring position (.348). Posey is such a difficult out that with runners in scoring position, he has more walks (30) than strikeouts (25). Though the average major league hitter bats .178 with two strikes, Posey hits a robust .264, fourth best in the majors. (The Braves' Martin Prado leads with a .290 average.)
"He's one of the toughest outs in baseball because of his swing path," Sabean says of Posey. "He's very direct to the ball. He doesn't mind hitting with two strikes."
Sabermetricians argue that clutch hitting is not a defined, repeatable skill measurable the way power or speed are. But Mozeliak, a strong proponent of using advanced metrics, has come to believe that certain players do have a knack for producing in such spots. "If you watch the game enough, it does seem like an innate ability," he says. "I understand that the hard-core community says it's not and that in time it averages out. But you know what? Sometimes you don't get enough time to see if it evens out."
It may be that hitting style also helps define whether a player is "clutch." For instance, the Cardinals' lineup is loaded with hitters who put the ball in play and hit to all fields, such as Freese, leftfielder Matt Holliday and catcher—and MVP candidate—Yadier Molina. Pull hitters tend to hit for lower averages and sacrifice strikeouts for power. St. Louis has no extreme pull hitters. "We felt like we could pound them in last year," says Texas G.M. Jon Daniels. "It's a team that looked for the ball out over the plate, the outer third. That was part of our approach: make them pull the ball. We didn't do a great job of that."
The Rangers, despite the free-swinging ways of slugger Josh Hamilton, are another dangerous rally team because of the depth of their lineup and their ability to make contact. Says Daniels, "We do look for players who are tough outs, who put the ball in play. [Hitting with] runners in scoring position, I think, is a hard thing to target when acquiring players. But whether you're from the school that says it's clutch or luck, the bigger issue may be strikeouts, especially in an era where the power is down somewhat."
Assuming the Tigers, who had a three-game lead over the White Sox in the AL Central through Sunday, make it into the postseason, they could be a perfect fit for the tournament. They put the ball in play, hit well with runners in scoring position and best satisfy Mattingly's criteria for anchoring the lineup with two tough outs: Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. With three games to play, Cabrera led the AL in batting average, home runs and RBIs, putting him in position to win the first Triple Crown since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera and Fielder have combined to hit 73 home runs, the second most by teammates, behind only Hamilton and Adrian Beltre of the Rangers, who have hit 79. (Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson of the Yankees have hit 70.) But the Detroit tandem has struck out only 181 times while hitting .346 with runners in scoring position, making it more dangerous in rally situations than the Yankees' pair (286 strikeouts, .254 RISP) or the Rangers' duo (236, .282).
The Tigers haven't won the World Series since 1984, which was so long ago that the clincher was a day game and the traditional wisdom of what wins in October was in full force. That Detroit team won 104 regular-season games, including 19 by ace Jack Morris, who started (and won) three of their eight postseason games. The Tigers went 7--1 in October while hitting .245.
Since then the postseason has been expanded three times: The LCS was stretched to best-of-seven in 1985, the Division Series round was added in 1995, and now the wild-card knockout games. More postseason games have been played since 2000 than in the first 65 years after the World Series began. A grueling four-week season after the season begins this weekend, taxing pitching staffs and bringing offenses to the fore like never before.
And then there's the biggest change from 1984: how rarely the ball is put into play. Baseball is played with 40% more strikeouts per game today than it was back then. Never before has strike three been more common. Avoiding it might just be the key to October.
THE MYTHS OF OCTOBER
UPON EXAMINATION, THE VALIDITY OF MANY POSTSEASON TRUISMS BREAKS DOWN
HOME FIELD IS AN ADVANTAGE
Yes, the last nine World Series Game 7s have been won by the home team. But look at a wider sample: Since 1998, 24 postseason series have gone down to the wire, with the home team going 11--13. Teams with overall home field advantage in their leagues have reached the World Series just eight times in 28 chances since '98. And teams with home field advantage in a series are 53--45, no advantage at all when you consider that the better team had home field advantage most of the time. With three games to play, the AL-leading Rangers were still pushing for home field advantage, but it just doesn't matter very much.
THE MYTHS OF OCTOBER
EXPERIENCE IS ESSENTIAL
The success of the 1996--2001 Yankees helped entrench the idea that postseason experience is critical. The good news for Bryce Harper and the young Nationals: Outside of the New York dynasty, experience has been a nonfactor. Since 2002, when the upstart Angels beat the Yankees in the ALDS on their way to a world championship, teams that had not played in the previous postseason are 23--13 against teams that had. Four of the last 10 World Series have been won by teams snapping streaks of at least four years without a postseason appearance. And the last three World Series were won by teams that missed the previous year's postseason. Don't believe the math? Check out last year's World Series MVP: David Freese had zero postseason at bats before 2011.
THE MYTHS OF OCTOBER
Changes in the way pitchers are handled and rested have rendered this one moot, as even the best starters are never given three starts in a single series any more. Chris Carpenter's three-start World Series for St. Louis last year was made possible by a rainout of Game 6 that pushed Game 7 back a day. The last pitcher to start Games 1, 4 and 7 of a postseason series was Curt Schilling for the 2001 Diamondbacks. It's safe to say that this strategy has disappeared—and with it, the impact that a larger-than-life ace (such as the Giants' Matt Cain) can have in a best-of-seven series.
THE MYTHS OF OCTOBER
The idea that a team's performance in September has a carryover effect in October is dying fast. Research by SI.com's Jay Jaffe has shown that there is no positive correlation between how a team closes the regular season and how it performs in the postseason. Recent history is littered with teams that stumbled through September—the 2006 Tigers and Cardinals, the '00 Yankees—before racing through October. In the modern game the playoffs are a completely new season with little relationship to the 162 games that came before them. Sorry, Orioles: When the first pitch flies on Oct. 5, forget everything that happened before that moment.
Get complete coverage of the MLB postseason, beginning with Friday's wild-card games and throughout October, including previews and analysis of every game and postgame video reports from Tom Verducci, at SI.com/mlb